Our critic doffs the white gloves for his annual 'Broadway Across America' smackdownHaving suffered through last season’s decidedly lackluster “Broadway Across America” offerings — oh, did we cry for you, Argentina — San Antonio could definitely look forward to a fresher touring season. And indeed, the winter and springtime slate for San Antonio includes a passable mixture of the innovative (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and the weary (the umpteenth renditions of Rent and Chicago), along with a few felicitous revivals that have passed New York City’s critical muster.
But first we must weather the autumn. Aimed squarely at San Antonio’s retirement population, the fall season aims to bring the best of 1979 to a majestic theater near you. It began last week with Ernest Thompson’s deathless (and not because critics haven’t been trying) On Golden Pond. Thompson’s maudlin take on mortality and intergenerational conflict is the sort of sentimental fare we had hoped to see flushed down the gilded toilet.
Yet the fall holds still more nostalgic fare: Next up is The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands, a West End import that recreates a Vegas lounge act starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Though the concept promises some camp value (will Sammy’s cufflinks get their own dressing room? Will Frankie be able to croon through alcohol blindness?), this is hardly a timeless statement on the human condition.
The fall concludes with All Shook Up, a mostly silly, “new” Elvis musical that managed to be less horrible than its jukebox brethren and so earned the immediate gratitude of the New York critics.
The spring is a happier time. The must-have ticket is to William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an improbable off-Broadway hit that moved uptown two years ago and still packs ’em in on the Great White Way. Chronicling the tribulations of six middle-schoolers locked in a battle of wits and orthography, this musical is the only thing hitting San Antonio this year that’s not a revival, recreation, or hellspawn combination thereof. Though San Antonio probably won’t see the infamous and occasional adults-only version of Spelling Bee (how do you spell G-O-N-O-R-R-H-E-A?), this production should be at the top of every theater-goer’s list.
In April, we get Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, David Yazbek’s musicalization of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine film. It’s actually a surprisingly zippy evening of musical comedy, including some risqué lyrics (be the only patron in the Majestic to understand the “hummer in my Hummer” line) and a bouncy, bright score. June brings a revival of Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity, about a luckless call girl, sure to appeal to the downtrodden sex worker in all of us.
I conclude, however, with a plea to the producers of Broadway in San Antonio and/or God: I accept as a matter of general cosmological principles that seaboard cities receive more sophisticated offerings, whereas we Texas yokels can be counted on to sponge up ever more bus ’n’ truck tours of Beauty and the Beast. But with so many excellent, innovative tours launching, could it be too much to ask for just one of the more daring offerings, like John Patrick Shanley’s amazing (and Pulitzer-Prize-winning) Doubt, or the sly, parodic “Christian boy band” musical Altar Boyz (featuring such tunes as “Girl, you make me want to wait!”)? Even Pittsburgh — not exactly the Milan of middle America — is slicing it up with Matthew Bourne’s ballet version of Edward Scissorhands. As long as Broadway in America continues to undersell itself to San Antonio’s under-40 population, it risks, I fear, skating on thin, golden ice.